Democratic Security Has Not Arrived for Colombia’s Indigenous Communities
At a military roadblock on the outskirts of the town of El Palo, heading south on the road towards Toribio, the crowded chiva in which I was riding was pulled over, its passengers asked to get off to allow for a “little search” of bags and documents. It’s a routine occurrence for the mostly indigenous and peasant residents of the area, except that this time I was on board, a New York-born journalist and researcher who for various reasons, has yet to obtain the proper Colombian documentation of citizenship to which I am entitled. So I discreetly handed over my U.S. passport to the officer in charge, only to be told by Third Captain Espitia Zapata Jamir that I should not go on any further, that there were no guarantees for my security beyond this point, and that as a foreigner I had to accept that I was going to Toribio “of my own volition.”
After a lengthy back and forth with the soldiers, I reluctantly signed a hand-written document Captain Zapata had hastily put together under orders from his superior at the other end of a walkie-talkie, the passengers on the chiva slowly losing patience with the unexpected delay. By signing the letter, I had agreed to accept sole responsibility for whatever was to happen to me on the way to Toribio, a not so veiled reference to a potential kidnapping or attack by the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who maintain a relatively unfettered control of the unpaved roads along the mountainside of this predominantly indigenous territory in the northern part of Cauca, in southwestern Colombia.
It was by no means a surprise for me, having traveled throughout the country in similar “red zones” over the years. But it was certainly disconcerting. Since arriving in Colombia in early July, and like most Colombians living in big cities who are for the most part buffered from the reality of the conflict, I had been informed by countless optimistic news reports and commentaries in the nightly news that the state had finally gained control of many areas throughout the country where the FARC had once dominated.
Such was supposedly the case here in northern Cauca, an area recently described by the Army as “Caguan II” in a comparative reference to the five municipalities demilitarized in 1999 by then-President Andres Pastrana during failed peace talks with the FARC. In a highly publicized special Security Council session of the Colombian Army in early July, officials described in great detail how, over the last 20 years, the FARC converted the region into one of its most important strategic outposts. This included a 350-kilometer network of clandestine roadways constructed by the FARC throughout the mountainous territory to facilitate passage between rebel camps, and a training base for new guerilla recruits. After an intense confrontation between the FARC and state security forces in Toribio, Cauca that lasted 11 days last April, local Army commanders were quick to proclaim that the “cowardly terrorist group” had been “neutralized,” and that security had arrived for the people of the region.
Indeed, President Alvaro Uribe Velez and his many supporters in and out of government have been quick to point out that under his democratic security strategy implemented since 2002 with the unwavering support of the White House, the government has been able to regain control of over 500 municipalities, bringing a level of security to the Colombian people not felt in generations. But as is the case with much in Colombia these days, one must look below the surface to find out who is really benefiting from this so-called security.
Currently in Toribio, the site of the April attack, the National Police maintains a massive presence throughout the center of town, with highly fortified bunkers scattered at different strategic points, and M-16-bearing soldiers stationed at just about every corner. Four months have passed, but remnants of the guerilla assault remain, with several buildings in the town reduced to nothing but rubble, the result of the rudimentary missiles launched by the FARC from the surrounding mountainside. Many walls are still adorned with sloppy graffiti reading “Organize with the FARC-EP” and “Down with the Public Force.”
The large police force now stationed in Toribio and other towns in the region represent at least a temporary military deterrent to another attack by the FARC. Nevertheless, Toribio’s residents uniformly express a level of heightened tension and enduring insecurity. “For us, both the guerillas and the military are unwanted, because they directly interfere with the community process we have been working on here for more than 30 years,” said one community leader, a Nasa Indian who works in the mayor’s office in Toribio.
The indigenous leadership has been at a heightened state of alert since early July, when the Commander of the Army’s Third Brigade, General Hernando Perez Molina, stationed in Cali, stated unequivocally that “in that area of northern Cauca, there existed a co-government where the FARC used resources from the European Union that was directed to the Nasa Project for the guerillas’ own benefit.” He made the comments in announcing the successful military strategy used by the Army in supposedly neutralizing the guerillas in what he described as “the second most important strategic area for the FARC in the entire country.”
The Nasa Project that General Perez Molina was referring to is a multi-faceted community development project started by the Nasa people in 1980 in the municipality of Toribio, encompassing three indigenous reserves—San Francisco, Tacueyo and Toribio. The Nasa Project includes political consciousness raising, community organizing, economic development based on sustainable agriculture and conservation, traditional education and health programs, and family assistance.
It is promoted locally through a comprehensive communication component manifested most visibly in the local community station Radio Nasa, which has been broadcasting without a license since 1996, and was closed down by the Ministry of Communications in September 2004. The Nasa Project has been recognized internationally as an important community development program that has had outstanding success in reducing poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. In 2004, it was awarded special recognition from the United Nations Development Program and the Equator Initiative.
According to representatives of the Nasa Project, by linking it with the guerillas of the FARC, General Perez Molina was unilaterally trying to discredit its autonomy, thus opening up its leaders to reprisals from the state, and eventually even paramilitary operations. “First of all, we have never received any money from the European Union,” said Arquimedes Vitonas, the mayor of Toribio who was kidnapped by the FARC in 2004, and later released. “But more importantly, we are completely independent of any of the actors in this conflict, and we have been extremely diligent about accounting for all the resources that come to the community. For the general to say there is a co-government with the FARC is very irresponsible.”
On August 2, the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN), organized a public rally in Santander de Quilichao, the main urban center in northern Cauca, to denounce the claims made by General Perez Molina. About 5,000 people gathered in the town square to denounce the statements, and to try and correct the record that was apparently distorted by what they saw as the reckless comments of the military commander.
“They talk of a co-government between the FARC and the indigenous authorities?” asked Luis Alfredo Acosta, coordinator of the Indigenous Guard of the Nasa people, a non-violent, civilian security apparatus set up by the indigenous councils to guard against guerilla, paramilitary and other armed incursions in their territories. “Well, we know of one co-government that really does exist today, that of the national government and the paramilitaries.”
The tone of Perez Molina’s comments is consistent with President Uribe’s position regarding the alternative social programs of indigenous communities throughout the country, which on more than one occasion he has described as illegal in their claims of autonomy from the state. Since taking office three years ago, Uribe has taken the George W. Bush adage of “you’re either with us or against us” to new levels in developing his national security program.
Earlier in his administration, Uribe proposed a series of constitutional reforms that would have chipped away at some of the hard fought guarantees that indigenous people struggled to win in the 1991 Constituent Assembly, guarantees the president believed threatened the authority of the central government. Among them was the recognition of indigenous territorial entities as autonomous zones where indigenous councils, or cabildos, would have ultimate jurisdiction.
Another source of friction between the government and the indigenous communities has been the ongoing negotiations with the United States over a bilateral free trade agreement. Indigenous, peasant, and Afro-Colombian organizations, along with the trade union movement, have been mobilizing against the free trade agreement, which they argue will devastate their local economies, while “handing over sovereignty to multinational corporations who do not recognize the authority of indigenous communities,” as Hector Mondragon, a social organizer who has worked for years with peasant and indigenous communities throughout Colombia, put it recently.
While the Constitutional protections remain in place for the time being, in part due to massive mobilizations spearheaded by the indigenous communities last September in Cali, the future of the free trade talks are still uncertain. The ACIN has called for a referendum on the free trade accords, scheduled for late August. And as this organizing continues, the government finds itself struggling to implement its democratic security strategy in indigenous territory.
Two controversial components of this strategy have been the creation of part-time “peasant armies” made up of people in rural areas, as well as the network of civilian informers that ostensibly collaborate directly with state forces in helping weed out guerillas. The approach of involving civilians in local security has resulted in tensions between the government and a growing number of “peace communities” in Colombia who have taken a position of “active neutrality” in the conflict.
This confrontation has been especially acute in Cauca, where the indigenous leadership has been adamant about refusing to cooperate with any of the armed actors in their territories, citing the constitutional provision respecting indigenous autonomy. The FARC’s attempt to consolidate its control in the region has inevitably led to clashes with state forces and with the indigenous communities who are resisting both sides. The vicious attack in Toribio was seen as the most extreme example of this type of military escalation.
“The April attack was no surprise for us. We saw it coming as the National Police began stepping up its presence in the municipality in the weeks prior to April 14,” said Toribio native Mauricio Casso, Administrative Coordinator of the ACIN. “The FARC really messed things up with the attack on the town, alienating everybody in the community with their brutality. But the state forces were just as much part of the problem. With their presence now, it opens the community up to even more reprisals from the guerillas.”
Indigenous leaders fear this may be the beginning of a much more intensified process of extermination in the months to come. “In Uraba we saw something similar, where the military accused banana workers of collaborating with the guerillas, leading to the introduction of paramilitaries who waged an all-out war against the people,” said one high level representative from the indigenous council of Jambalo, a town about one hour further up the mountain from Toribio. “You began to see targeted assassinations against the leadership, with complete impunity, followed by massacres and the forced displacement of entire communities. I hope it doesn’t come to this in northern Cauca.”
He added that the high level of organization of the indigenous community prevented a similar level of displacement in the wake of the attack on Toribio, as the women, children and elders mobilized to long-established “permanent assembly” locations just outside the center of town until the combat subsided. “Will the people be able to withstand another battle like that in the future? This is another question entirely,” he said.
The Toribio indigenous council, with the support of the ACIN and other indigenous organizations in the area, have consistently made three demands in order to prevent a similar episode from happening in the coming months:
1. A complete withdrawal of all armed forces from the municipality and indigenous territory.
2. An immediate cease-fire and end to hostilities.
3. A negotiated end to the conflict between the government and the FARC rebels.
It is unlikely than any of these community demands will be met any time soon. President Uribe has made it clear that state security forces will remain anywhere they deem necessary in order to confront the guerillas. This will inevitably lead to more hostile, military confrontations between the two sides, leaving the community once again in the middle. And although the president is aggressively moving forward with negotiations to “demobilize” thousands of right-wing paramilitary fighters who make up the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), he has not made any concrete steps to move to the negotiating table with the left-wing FARC.
“The social organizations of the Nasa people in northern Cauca are the most important popular social movements in the entire country right now, they’re the only social sector that to a certain extent has been able to defend its rights and maintain a certain level of recognition on the part of the state,” said Mondragon. “And this will continue so long as there is an organization and a movement that makes sure these rights are recognized and respected. How will these rights be taken away? As in other recent examples in Colombia, through violence, and attacks on the leadership.”
Ultimately, what is clear is that democratic security for the indigenous communities in northern Cauca has not been all that the government has described it as. “It’s the calm of la chicha,” one community resident said, referring to the traditional corn-fermented drink popular in the region. “On the surface everything seems normal, but below it, things are bubbling over, ready to explode.”